Thursday, June 2, 2011

Chapter Six – You what?

It’s a Saturday and I’m going to meet an old friend in Massachusetts, but there’s an entire state to write about first:
Rhode Island - It’s not really an island.
Back into Massachussets and I head for Salem.
When I first moved to London back in 1998 I shared a flat with a lot of people, most of whom were foreigners on short term lets. One of the most memorable was a Croatian girl named Dolly, short for Dolores. She married an American and moved over here 11 years ago and I haven’t seen or spoken to her since. Thanks to the wonders of Facebook I contacted her but I had no idea if we’d even get on!
The Americans celebrate Memorial Day weekend with “cookouts” (which are suspiciously similar to barbeques) and Dolly invited me to join her and her family at a friend’s house.
So I show up to be greeted by a woman who looks like Dolly, but doesn’t sound like her. She has a loud New England accent and people keep calling her Dolores! I realise 11 years is a long time and worry this might be a long day. Happily, Dolly and I are soon reminiscing about good times, her friends are a welcoming bunch and keep me fed and watered, and her husband Carlos is a nice bloke who offers me a night at their house. Even their two noisy little kids are entertaining!
In fact, they plan to do it all again the next day at a bigger house with a bigger pool so I stick around. On Sunday morning we have a wander round the bizarre town of Salem. The attractions mix serious monuments (to people hanged or crushed in the witch trials), blokes dressed as pirates, and a statue to the actress from Bewitched! We then spend an enjoyable afternoon with a dozen or more of Carlos’s family and friends. Steaks and beer in the sun, while the kids enjoy the pool.
On Monday I bid farewell to Dolly, Carlos and the kids. The silence in the car is deafening and I’ve mixed emotions at returning to solitude. Still, nothing a dose of Iron Maiden won’t sort out!
Maine next and I’ve made 43 of the 50. Martin recommended Acadia National Park so I… you remember Martin, plumbing bloke on the Jersey shore! …yes, so I head round the Maine coast. It’s very pretty up here, when you can see past the trees, and the ANP is a beautiful place. I drive up Cadillac Mountain where you can be the first person in the USA to see the sunrise, and the views are spectacular at any time. Finally, after two weeks travelling I get to indulge in my favourite holiday treat and watch the sun set across my own swimming pool to the sounds of Chicane’s “Autumn Tactics”. Bliss.
Tuesday, and as I’m still heading East on this great Westward adventure I decide to go all the way. Lubec and the Quoddy head state park may not mean much to us, but it’s the USA’s Easternmost point! …and it has a stripey lighthouse!
I chat with some bikers on Harleys, which is appropriate as my next destination is one of the “four corners” of the USA, a challenge many Harley riders set themselves. The good folks at Rand McNally have done a mighty fine job of producing a deceptive map of Maine so it turns out to be a long trek North to Madawaska. I stop off at Houlton, notable for er, being where the US1, 2 and I95 meet.
I have a Chinese buffet (Well, I am in the Far East!) and then hang out in the “Irish” bar where the conversation ranges from moose heads to gay dogs.
Madawaska may be the North-Easternmost point, but it’s not the most memorable, and is something of an anti-climax after the trek here. I’m then surprised by Canada. You’d think after flirting with the border since Niagara I’d have been ready, but the whole thing came as a shock.
“How long are you staying?”
 “er, um, err, how long does it take to get to Michigan? 4 days or so, maybe a week?”
I don’t think border guards like woolly answers.
“Step into this room sir”
Ho hum. At least they’re not as scary as the US customs, though that could be because they could only put me back in my car, not on a plane! However there was only a repeat of the questions, by which time I’d decided a week was fine, and I was in Canada!
Except my GPS wasn’t. Well, it was physically, but we might as well have been in timbuctoo for all it knew. This surprised me as it had shown marvellous pre-cognitive awareness before crossing the border. Now it transpired it knew of interstates, or whatever the Canadians call them, but nothing else. It was also out by a few hundred yards so would tell me off for driving through the fields.
Next problem, I didn’t have any money. Still, they should accept US$ right?
I didn’t have a guidebook to Canada, so had no idea where to go. Oh well, Quebec sounds nice.
I’d also moved forward in time by an hour. Whoever heard of crossing a timezone heading North?!
Oh, and everything had turned French.
Still, on the upside, the speed limit on the motorway was 100!
I was finally heading West, but was driving blind. I know people got around for many years before GPS (I know I’ve gone American but it’s shorter to type than sat-nav) but travelling on your own it’s hard to drive and follow a map, and when you’re crossing continents it’s impossible to have enough small scale maps.
My mood lifted when I climbed a hill to find a beautiful lake with a picnic area, and I supped my Tropicana thinking it was worth the hassle.
So I bumble my way into Quebec. Spurning the motorway for the more interesting roads, then getting lost thanks to comedy road signs and detours. Eventually I make it, but it’s rush hour, it’s very windy and there seems to be dust everywhere. Quebec sucks, but I spot a Holiday Inn so decide to check in and get organised.
“We’re full”
I head to the budget place down the road, but a roof tile nearly clouts me as I fail to find the reception. Sod it, I’ll get some food first. So I drive into a strange city, tired and hungry with no idea where anything is, where I am or where I’m going…
…and that’s how I came to arrive at a street full of good looking people eating gorgeous food beneath incredible old buildings lit beautifully by the evening sky, Quebec Rocks!
But there’s a problem. People say I’m brave (or mad) travelling on my own, but it’s fine in smalltown USA. There you can sit at a bar and the friendly locals will usually chat happily. In a city it’s more difficult. In a city where they speak a foreign language you’re stuffed. Yes you can talk to one person, but as soon as they turn to a friend you’re lost. There’s a saying about loneliness in crowds, it’s worse when you can’t understand the crowd. I wandered round the beautiful walled city of Quebec and thought how I’d love to return here with somebody, some day.
West into the darkness. Hit the interstate then hope for a hotel sign. There’s one! Looks a bit of a dump but hey it’s cheap and the reception is a bar with two good looking girls watching the ice hockey. Unfortunately there’s no internet in the rooms so I’m forced to hang out in the bar while I download Canada to my GPS, damn! Katherine and Anna speak a liitle English, but I’m surprised how hard it is to follow their French. Then we’re joined by Adam who explains that even French people can’t understand Quebec French. No wonder I’m struggling. I think it’s like a foreigner learning some English, then trying to understand a Geordie!
Adam fetches his girlfriend (She’s from Western Canada and doesn’t speak French) so I’ve an ally and the five of us have a bi-lingual conversation until late.
Thursday starts badly. No free buffet breakfasts here, and despite my GPS now bulging with information, no sign of a Denny’s. I’m not happy. My easy banter with strangers has been replaced by puzzled looks, “I don’t speak French” and jokes lost in translation. I try to visit Montreal but the traffic’s a mess and the weather’s turning bad. So I just keep on going.
Canadian’s are supposed to be more intelligent than Yanks, yet they drive too close. Even when there’s nobody else on the road! My opinion is reinforced by two separate smashes that happen shortly in front of me as I head towards Ottawa.
I get off the interstate to escape the traffic. There’s a sports bar, and now I’m in Ontario they speak English.
It feels like I’ve come home.

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